Listening to the popular theatre critic/journalist Peter Filichia talk about musicals can be twice as entertaining as half the shows on Broadway. Ever hear his story about the audience reaction at the first preview of Bring Back Birdie? Or the way he one-upped David Merrick after being tossed out of a preview of 42nd Street? Or the exact moment he could tell, while watching an out-of-town tryout of Company, that Dean Jones would not be playing Bobby for long?
Well, if you haven't had the pleasure, you can come close to replicating it with his new book, Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and The Biggest Flop of the Season - 1959 to 2009, a collection of 100 essays featuring his unique spins on what made the hot tickets and the cold turkeys so interesting.
Be around musical theatre long enough and you hear the same stories quite a bit; how the inclusion of "Comedy Tonight" turned A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Form from a flop to a hit, how Hello, Dolly! was extensively rewritten during out-of-town tryouts or how Pippin's modestly done television commercial revolutionized how Broadway shows were advertised. But Broadway Musicals had this reasonably educated musical theatre enthusiast surprised by little-known facts and intrigued by rarely-considered observations from cover to cover.
Is there anything new that can be written about Fiddler on the Roof? Well, yes... the notion that, in a very non-traditional way, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's score has produced a song that has proven to become a timeless American standard. You may know that Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry's Lolita, My Love, based on Vladimir Nabokov's scandalous novel, shut down before making it to Broadway, but Filichia, who caught a tryout performance in Boston, calls it "a bad idea gone right," giving a detailed synopsis that praises many aspects of the book and score (and particularly Dorothy Loudon's show-stealing performance) but summarizing that no matter how well it might have been done, it was just an impossible project to do successfully.
At a recent pair of promotional events, one held at Lincoln Center's soon-to-be-gone Barnes & Noble (hosted by Zero Hour author and star, Jim Brochu) and another at the hopefully eternal Drama Book Shop (hosted by Ken Bloom, co-author of Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time) Filichia explained how he wasn't raised on musical theatre and, like a typical American teenager of the 60s, his musical interest was in rock and roll, particularly novelty songs like Ray Stevens' "(My Friend, The) Witch Doctor." But his musical taste changed forever after discovering a friend's parents' LPs of My Fair Lady, Gigi and Paint Your Wagon. Living in Boston in the 1960s and 70s meant nourishing his new-found passion by taking in pre-Broadway tryouts, though his taste didn't always concur with the mainstream ("I made a lot of enemies when I told people to go see Prettybelle instead of Follies.").
"We start with the hits, but are drawn to the flops," he observes, explaining how there hasn't been much debate about his fifty selections as the biggest successes but has been challenged continually and with great vigor about his choices for the biggest flops. His criteria for their selection is based on some obvious factors such as number of performances and the amount of money lost, but expectations also come into play. Merrily We Roll Along was not the shortest running Broadway musical of the 1981-82 season, but who would have thought the newest Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince offering would last a mere sixteen performances? Certainly not its young cast. In the book's most moving essay, Filichia describes how the inexperienced ensemble's proud looks of "complete bliss" at the production's first preview had melted into "glazed, shell-shocked smiles" by the final performance, having endured weeks of giving their all to unenthused audiences. But years later, with the original company gathered for a 20th Anniversary concert performance, they were greeted by a cheering crowd who had come to adore them as folk heroes; what was considered a dismal failure in their youth has gradually earned a reputation as a shiny underappreciated gem.
While there is plenty to debate in Filichia's exploration of Broadway's hits (His explanation as to why the theatre community embraced Big River will make his name Mississippi mud among that show's fans.), not since Ken Mandelbaum's highly regarded Not Since Carrie has a book on musical theatre so affectionately regarded Broadway's less fortunate efforts. Readers familiar with his style will recognize the casual and humorous tone, packed with fascinating tidbits and trivia, and, as with the Mandelbaum classic, will probably be yearning for a revised edition by the time the new decade is through.
Looks like Steve Martin has been officially traded to the art world. Last night I saw Holland Cotter do ten minutes at Dangerfield's.
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